Criminal Justice

This Week in Innocence

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In 1984, Thomas Haynesworth, then 18 and with no prior criminal record, was arrested after one victim in a series of five rapes over a month-long period around Richmond, Virginia, spotted him on the street and identified him as her assailant. The other four women eventually identified him in a photo lineup. He was convicted of three rapes, acquitted of a fourth, and the charges were dropped in the fifth. He has been in prison ever since. The victim IDs were the only evidence against him.

The problem is, the so-called "Black Ninja" rapes, which bore a close resemblance with those for which Hayneworth was convicted, continued well after Haynesworth was in cutsody. Nearly a year and at least a dozen rapes later, police arrested Leon Davis for those subsequent rapes. Davis was charged with 12 rapes, was convicted of three, and was sentenced to multiple life terms.

In 2005 Virginia Gov. Mark Warner ordered a review of thousands of rape cases after five men convicted of the crime were exonerated by DNA evidence. That review discovered that one of the three rapes for which Haynesworth had been convicted was committed by Davis. The two are similar in appearance.

Davis has always maintained his innocence. The problem for him is that there's no testable DNA remaining from the other two rapes for which he was convicted.

At this point, the prosecutor's office in Richmond believes Hayneworth is innocent, as do prosecutors in Henrico County, the site of the other rape. So does Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a guy who ran on law-and-order credentials.

But as the Washington Post points out, even when defense attorneys and prosecutors agree that a man has been wrongly convicted, the courts aren't obliged to agree.

The Virginia Court of Appeals, which considers so-called Writs of Actual Innocence, has only once exonerated a convict in a case that didn't have the certainty of genetic evidence. The court must be convinced that no jury would convict Haynesworth if it heard all the facts known today.

One victim is advocating for Haynesworth's release. But another, a woman in a case without DNA, remains convinced that she identified the right man.

"Courts are very reluctant to reopen criminal convictions, for reasons of finality and because they worry that the new evidence may be less reliable than the evidence available at the time of trial," said Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who has studied exonerations.

It's an impossibly high standard, and one that would likely have denied nearly all the 266 people exonerated by DNA testing had that testing not been available. But the flaws in the system that allowed those convictions to happen are obviously just as prevelant in cases where there's no genetic material to test. Perhaps the most important thing DNA testing has shown us is that it's time to rethink the premium that appeals courts put on finality.

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  1. Courts are very reluctant to reopen criminal convictions…

    The courts can’t have their work reexamined ad infinitum. Better to have the innocent dude rot in prison.

    1. Not only that, but courts and prosecutors hate to admit they make mistakes – it might lead to the peons having doubts about their infallibility in future cases. Can’t have that.

  2. Note to rapists: Use a condom.

  3. Off-topic, Radley, but had you heard about this case?

    http://www.sun-sentinel.com/ne…..6381.story

    There aren’t a lot of details there. But what I can gather, not only did he spend 38 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, he was actually acquitted, and then re-tried, and then found guilty, all without anyone telling him about that little right against double jeopardy.

    1. There aren’t a lot of details there. But what I can gather, not only did he spend 38 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, he was actually acquitted, and then re-tried, and then found guilty, all without anyone telling him about that little right against double jeopardy.

      Who the fuck retried him for the rape? Should not that person be tried for treason?

      And why was he sentenced to life imprisonment? Most people convicted of rape get less than ten years in prison? Why the excessively harsh sentence?

      1. “Freed on a rainy night, Brown was released to a world that bore little resemblance to the one he left behind. Not only had he missed the fall of the World Trade Center, he missed its rise. Decades of history and technology had passed him by.”

        Dude was arrested in 1970. He missed the rise as well as the fall…the second tower wasn’t finished until 1971.

        Worse than bad writing… he figured out double jeopardy in 1989 but didn’t get out until nearly 20 years later…

  4. I worry more about the value of eyewitness testimony–more skepticism here, please. Especially when it is the only evidence.

    1. Whenever I have been called for jury duty I’ve said that I could never convict based solely on an eyewitness ID. I’ve also said I could never convict based solely on LEO testimony. Unsurprisingly I’ve never been picked to serve on a jury.

      1. Another thing that will get you dumped is telling them you can’t/won’t convict on s/he said-s/he said testimony. I’ve served on one jury – it didn’t involve any of the things you (or I) mentioned.

    2. There is no way that a single eyewitness reaches the level of ‘reasonable doubt’.

      1. To be clearer: reaches beyond the level of reasonable doubt.

        1. Exactly. Eyewitness testimony has value, but not enough to convict alone.

          Heck, there is a reason Jewish law required multiple witnesses:

          One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. – Deuteronomy 19:15 (NIV)

  5. Of course she’s convinced. Her alternative is to be convinced that she sent an innocent man to jail for 26 years.

    If you were her, which would you rather believe about yourself?

    1. I’d rather believe that I had made an honest mistake and was honorable enough to own up to it. It’s healthier in the long run.

      1. And consciously, she probably thinks about that sometime.

        But doing what you propose requires her to admit she’s made that mistake – essentially stealing this man’s life – that approaches murder. And while somebody who isn’t in her position can imagine it would be “healthier”, that admission about herself would destroy her.

        So her subconscious mind knows that it’s either destroy him (insist he’s guilty) or destroy herself.

        1. that admission about herself would destroy her.

          It might and then again it might not – depends upon how flimsy a foundation she has based her self-esteem; if it is one of being infallible, then probably so. Yet failure to make that admission, at least to herself, may eventually destroy her anyway. Repression is like a cancer – to be successful it usually requires ever greater amounts of repression – ever more areas of thought to be blocked – to the point that it can interfere with one’s rationality and perception of the world. This would be particularly so with something so emotionally charged that it “would destroy her.”

          In any event, you asked what others would rather believe about themselves. I merely answered for myself.

          1. Certainly.

            And of course she may be right. None of us can actually know, and what we’re writing are really hypotheticals about what we think we’d actually be thinking and feeling in her situation.

            But I quite believe her when she says she’s convinced.

  6. Some typos I noticed:

    in Henrico County, the site of the otehr rape.

    a review ordered Virginia Gov. Mark Warner ordered a review

    1. your exceedingly-valuable contribution

    2. for your exceedingly-valuable contribution

    3. for your exceedingly-valuable contribution

  7. Eyewitness testimony is the LEAST reliable sort of “evidence.”

    1. What about officer testimony? Or is that a subset of “eyewitness testimony”?

      1. officer testimony doesn’t fall into the category “evidence”, so doesn’t count in comparisons of evidence reliability.

    2. Eyewitness testimony is the LEAST reliable sort of “evidence.”

      So why is it still allowed?

  8. Shouldn’t this be more of an argument for the pardon power? Isn’t it there to correct injustices like this, even though most politicians are afraid to use it these days?

    1. Exactly. Virginia’s shiny new governor should step up, right now, and pardon him.

      Jeebus, there’s zero political exposure for this. The freakin’ prosecutors are asking for it!

    2. When I hear about this, I always think about a line from Futurama: “We’ve petitioned the governor for your release, but he doesn’t want to appear soft on people who’ve been falsely imprisoned”.

    3. Isn’t it there to correct injustices like this, even though most politicians are afraid to use it these days?

      Clinton was not too afraid.

  9. I suppose it is remotely possible that Haynesworth committed the two rapes for which he has not been exonerated. But there is certainly no evidence that is better than dubious, let alone rises to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” level.

    If the courts are refusing to reverse themselves, the Governor at least should issue a pardon.

    1. Ah, but that’s one of the hallmarks of a self aggrandizing pencil neck jerkwad like Mark Warner – make a sweeping pronouncement that wins him applause, and then leave the nuts and bolts details to people that will get no credit for actually doing something good. Also, any blame if things get screwed up or overlooked.

  10. Who the fuck cares as long as the cells are full.

    1. The women who were raped?

  11. Friday? Check.
    Balko article? Check.
    Balls in agonizing pain? Check.

    All is right in the world.

  12. As an aside, Henrico is the County that Richmond is in, so it’s really the same locale, not two separate places.

    Also, VA should be famous for being absolutely medieval when it comes to even being hinted at as being a suspect in a sex related crime. Probably one of the most stacked decks in the nation in that regard. A lawyer acquaintance related that even the flimsiest of allegations will usually cost tens of thousands of dollars for even the most obviously innocent person to mount a defense, with the very definite near probability that they’re going to jail for a very, very long time. With no retribution or accountability for those fabricating accusations, nor DA’s who press ahead with weak or patently bogus charges. Although, as Radley regularly points out, the DA free pass thing is pretty much normal normal nationwide.

    1. Although, as Radley regularly points out, the DA free pass thing is pretty much normal normal nationwide.

      Why do DA’s get a free pass?

      Do not their victims’ families have access to fuel oil and fertilizer?

  13. Two ponts:

    -Is this not what for what the pardon/commutation process is?

    – If only the media networks paid as much attention to this case instead of trying to blame Sarah Palin for the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

    1. Yes but governors have no incentive to pardon unless there is massive publicity in favor of pardoning. And even that might not be enough to overcome the backlash that would occur if the governor lets an actual serial rapist go free.

      1. Yes but governors have no incentive to pardon unless there is massive publicity in favor of pardoning. And even that might not be enough to overcome the backlash that would occur if the governor lets an actual serial rapist go free.

        So why are the media networks not creating an outcry? They sure did their best to create an outcry against Sarah Palin in reaction to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

        And also, the lack of massive publicity sure did not stop Bill Clinton from pardoning Marc Rich.

        1. So why are the media networks not creating an outcry?

          Probably because without DNA evidence there isn’t 100% certainty that an innocent man is in jail.

          And also, the lack of massive publicity sure did not stop Bill Clinton from pardoning Marc Rich.

          That’s because Rich’s former wife had donated to the Democrats and the Clinton Library.

          1. Well, there is 100% certainty that he was falsely convicted of one of the rapes. So at the least, it seems like he should be able to get a new sentencing.

  14. Probably because without DNA evidence there isn’t 100% certainty that an innocent man is in jail.

    And yet the network media was 100% certain that Sarah Palin incited the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

    1. Because the media has nothing to lose and everything to gain for saying that. Not so for a this story.

      1. Because the media has nothing to lose and everything to gain for saying that. Not so for a this story.

        You seem to imply that the network media is something other than a watchdog, a Fourth Estate.

  15. As an aside, Henrico is the County that Richmond is in, so it’s really the same locale, not two separate places.

    No. Since some time in the late 19th century, cities in Virginia have not formed part of their surrounding counties. Henrico and Richmond are next to each other, but Richmond is not in Henrico.

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